How Do I Find My Hook?
by Karen Melamed, Barbara Wellner, and LeGrande Green
“So, what’s your hook?” That is the first question we always asked potential guests when we were producers on The Oprah Winfrey Show. We got calls from every source: publicists, authors, people off the street who thought their story or expertise was worthy of being on Oprah.
All these would-be guests knew they had to convince us that their stories were more than run-of-the-mill, and that they should be singled out for a chance to tell those stories before millions. They all had a pitch. Unfortunately, something was often missing in their pitches.
As you might guess, since scores of people were vying for our attention every day, we could give each one only about a minute to make a point and grab our attention. We would listen, and then, almost invariably, we’d have to cut them off with that all-important question, “But what’s the hook?”
Truth be told, a TV producer has been forced to have the attention span of a three-year-old who has just downed a fistful of M&Ms. We’re busy. We’re on deadlines. We have shows to produce, emails to return, and meetings to attend. The vast majority of pitches are done by phone, so it’s easy to end them when they are going nowhere.
“What’s the hook?” we’d ask the caller. “Do you have one?” If they faltered, we shuffled their phone numbers to the bottom of our pile and politely got off the phone. Without a good hook, you simply won’t be booked, whether the show be Today or AM Buffalo.
Celebrities can use their personalities as their hooks. People like Judge Judy, Martha Stewart, and Richard Simmons are individuals who fascinate audiences. You hear their names, and you know what you’ll be getting. Jennifer Doe and John Smith, who have no name value, need that unique something about their topic or themselves that makes their stories different from all the rest.
A Handful of Hooks
A hook should be an attention-grabbing sentence or sentence fragment that you are able to explain easily and concisely. If you need a paragraph or 15 minutes to give a producer your hook, go back to the drawing board.
Let us give you some examples.
A writer has a book of stories coming out about all the haunted houses that line the East Coast. Well, that’s nice. Heard it before. But one of the chapters is about a woman who met and fell in love with her ghost. OK, now you’ve got my attention. And the woman who fell in love with the ghost? She can join you on the show to tell her story. Bingo. You have a hook and you’ve just made it easy for us to say yes. You’ve produced your own segment for us. We love you.
An environmental expert has written a book about how to be more “green” in everyday life. Greening is a big topic. An important topic. An overdone topic. So, what’s new and different? Why should this person be booked instead of one of many experts in this area? The answer is that this author has taken green to the extreme. He built his house from garbage, traded his gas-guzzling car for roller blades, and forced his family to go green with him by dining only on foods found in restaurant dumpsters. He’s also offering to “green” a viewer’s home for free. Producers love being able to offer something to their audience.
The author of a book on self-defense might have given a karate demo in the studio. Ho-hum. But instead this author has a great hook: surprise attack. He starts by offering to teach four people how to defend themselves from a mugging. Then, days later, when they least expect it, these students are “mugged.” The attack is secretly taped to see how his students do. Crazy? Absolutely. A great hook? Absolutely. This author got booked on Oprah several times.
Another writer has a book called Everyday Nutrition. The title alone puts us to sleep. But one chapter buried in the back of the book is about food you can eat that will grow hair on a bald head. The chapter is called “Eat, Drink and Be Hairy.” Also buried inside the book is a list of smoothies you can mix up that will help a couple ensure the sex of their unborn child. That chapter is called “Gender Blenders.” OK, now we’re paying attention. This writer needed to forget pitching the book and pitch only those chapters.
What if the book you want to pitch is a novel? Well, that’s a tough one. Unless you’re Stephen King or John Grisham, it’s hard to convince any show to talk about a novel that isn’t also a cultural phenomenon. So, now you have to look inward. Is there a personal author’s story that is bookable? Before the original Harry Potter novel became a huge success, the tale of J.K. Rowling as a struggling single mom—on the dole and writing in a coffee shop because there was no heat in her dingy apartment—got people talking about her and her book in the magazines and papers.
If your personal story isn’t that colorful, how about someone else’s personal story that’s relevant and that you can tell? Something you can use for show-and-tell? Some free service related to your book that you can offer?
Some people wouldn’t recognize their hook if it hit them in the head. But every book has one, even though finding it may be like excavating for a hidden treasure buried way down deep. Think of your hook as simply a way to get you in the door to publicize your book, a way to get to Yes.
The authors are partners in MediaWise (mediawise-consulting.com; 310/745-0304), which provides media coaching, TV booking basics, and media-platform development for authors and experts who want to expand their reach to television, radio, and the Web. Karen Melamed has executive-produced several TV shows and was a producer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Barbara Wellner has been a TV executive and executive producer and was instrumental in starting up the F/X network. LeGrande Green was a producer on The Oprah Winfrey Show for eight years and has won four Daytime Emmy Awards.